‘We can’t relax’: Europeans face up to life after lockdown
Her customers may be back and there are, miraculously, more of them. Spring is here; the sun is out. No one wants to dwell on what happened; everyone wants to pick up their lives again, same asbefore.
“But still,” says Sophie Fornairon, “things have changed.”
As the countries of continental Europe emerge, cautiously, step by step and at very different rhythms, from their coronavirus lockdowns, even those who managed to make something of confinement see the world is no longer as it was – and may not be for some time.
When France first shut down on 16 March, Fornairon was one of many who believed bookshops like hers could have been kept open safely.
Books, she says, “can help at times like this. They can deliver answers and provide peace. They lift you out of the everyday and away from the moment. They transport you to other worlds. They are anti-fear. But not everyone has them at home, and the libraries were shut. So I started delivering, on foot.”
A good bookseller, she says, is not unlike a doctor – which, until five years ago when she opened her Paris bookshop, La Librairie du
Canal, is what she was: a transplant specialist at the nearby Hôpital St-Louis. “A book,” she says, firmly, “has a therapeutic function.”
In 55 days of France’s lockdown, Fornairon and her trolley delivered 2,000 packages of books, to loyal customers keen to keep her in business and an expanding list of new ones. “They wanted all sorts,” she says. “Children’s, science fiction, classics: La Peste, War and Peace, The Odyssey, Proust. Teach yourself: a language, or music.”
It was exhausting but it saved her business, bringing in half what the small bookshop would usually earn and allowing her to pay the rent and bills. And since non-essential stores reopened in France from 11 May, it has brought her, wholly unexpectedly, many more customers than she had before.
“It’s like people have suddenly seen the value of the local bookshop,” Fornairon says. “People who once shopped on Amazon are coming to us because we offer proximity, contact, community, advice. We are cultural mediators. They like it.”
Crisis to come
Will it last? Sadly, she is not sure. Understandably, Fornairon says, no one yet wants to acknowledge “just how massive the coming economic crisis is going to be. Right now, all might seem fine. But this is just the beginning.”
More than 500 miles away in Berlin, DJ Alessio Armeni – stage name Freddy K – is concerned for the future too. A fortnight before the German capital’s nightclubs closed on 13 March, Armeni played the 12-hour final set at Berghain, Berlin’s celebrated temple for electronica lovers, starting at 1am on Sunday night.
But authorities had already identified two clubs, Trompete and Kater Blau, as Covid-19 hotspots. “In Berlin, clubs actually started to shut their doors before the authorities made them because they wanted to protect their guests,” he says. “This city may cherish freedom and fun, but with an incredible sense of responsibility.”
The DJ worked assiduously throughout the lockdown, playing a daily live techno set for a radio station and contributing to United We Stream, an online fundraising initiative that has so far raised more than €475,000 (£420,000) for struggling venues in a city that sees clubs as “something of cultural value that’s important to the city”.
But while Berlin’s bars and restaurants began reopening on 15 May, clubland remains in limbo, with no timetable for its return. In the long run, Italian-born Armeni says, nightclubs simply serve too primal a function to be replaced by live streams.
“You can just about imagine people dancing in front of their laptops,” he says. “But for me, DJing is about finding a connection with a crowd. I miss the surge of adrenaline when that happens. I miss the smell, the sweat, the eye contact.”
For now, Berlin’s partygoers had been respectful of distancing rules. “But politicians need to give us a prospect for the future soon,” he says, “or you’re going to get illegal raves in the forests.”
A thousand miles away in Spain, Joan Guerola hopes all can learn from what has happened. Under Spain’s staggered lockdown loosening rules, from 11 May the parish priest of Sant Miquel de Deltebre-La Cava in Catalonia has been able to hold masses for a third of his parishioners. Since 25 May, half may come in.
Lessons for everyone
But during the peak of one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns, Guerola resorted to less orthodox pastoral methods.
In Holy Week, the 42-year-old clambered aboard a flatbed truck decked out with a huge picture of Jesus, a loudspeaker and a makeshift altar to deliver mobile blessings. “People couldn’t come to church on Holy Thursday, so I took the blessed sacrament to them,” he says.
The past two months have entailed other significant, if less dramatic, changes. Masses have been broadcast on YouTube or Facebook. But technology cannot yet replace physical presence: Guerola has taken communion to old people who have no internet, and tended to the sick and the dying.
“When I’ve had to administer the last rites, instead of anointing with my hands I’ve done it with the little wooden sticks doctors use,” he says. “Communion has been with gloves and a mask. The main thing has just been being there.”
The past few months, he believes, have offered lessons to everyone, whatever their beliefs – or lack of them. “I think this has shown you should live life day-by-day,” he says. “And it’s a reminder never to put off till tomorrow what you can do today. You never know how things could turn out.”
On the Danish island of Fyn, lockdown came so fast on 12 March that Claire Astley, a primary school teacher whose father is English, had no time to even say goodbye to her classes. Her last two pupils returned last week, marking the end of a long journey back to a new normality.
When a batch of chicks hatched in the incubator at the back of Astley’s classroom, two went straight to 10-year-olds with a parent in a risk group. “They each have a friend they can share a chick with,” she explains. “They can only touch one other person, because they have to be careful.”
The return of those final two pupils – only made possible by their parents isolating from them at home – came a full five weeks after most of the rest of their classmates were among the first of Europe’s pupils to go back to school, on 15 April.
Lockdown, by contrast, happened disturbingly fast, from one day to the next. “We started with having Zoom meetings just once a week, because nobody knew how to use it,” says Astley.
Stressful and exhausting
But while the school is now back, its half-day regime is one of many changes. Instead of moving between three classes, Astley has just one shared 24-pupil group. Half sit in the assembly room and half in the classroom, enabling two metres between desks. Teachers meet to plan online, despite being in adjacent classrooms. “It’s a very strange feeling,” Astley said. “Being with people, but not being able to be ‘there’, you know? So you’re all the time checking yourself. ‘Am I allowed to do this? Am I not allowed to do this?’ And for the kids, obviously that’s stressful too.”
For many pupils, it has worked. As well as the chicks, the class has had a tadpole project, made beads, and staged a marble Olympics. Others, though, have struggled. “Children who like their structure find it a bit exhausting,” she says.
Exhausting – and still alarming – is what the past few weeks and months have been for Enzo Lattuca, at 32 one of Italy’s youngest mayors and in office for just seven months when the pandemic struck Cesena, a city of 100,000 in the hard-hit Emilia-Romagna region. His concern now is a possible second wave.
“The easiest part was getting people to comply with the lockdown rules,” Lattuca says. “The difficult part was knowing how to manoeuvre in such an unknown context, where we were unable to say how long it would last or how serious it would be. We just had to … keep going.”
In a region that suffered more than 4,000 deaths – the second highest toll in Italy – the real battle was fought by medical workers, Lattuca says. At the peak of the pandemic, his city alone was was registering between 40 and 50 cases a day.
But his job was not easy. During confinement, “staying close to citizens, answering their questions – even if their problem was minor, like ‘where can I take my dog for a pee?’ – was so important.”
In the run-up to 4 May, when restrictions began to be ease, Lattuca had to find face masks for everyone. After 18 May, when bars, restaurants and shops began reopening, he faced young people gathering in groups outside bars. But for the most part, Lattuca says, people are acting cautiously.“They are enthusiastic about trying to get back some normality, but they’re doing it intelligently. We’ve had zero cases for a week now, but they are still paying attention. We can’t relax. We need to be prepared for a second wave. Because next time, we won’t have any excuses.”